WASHINGTON - (AP) - President Barack Obama on Friday forcefullyendorsed building a mosque near Ground Zero, saying the country'sfounding principles demanded no less.

"As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims havethe same right to practice their religion as anyone else in thiscountry," Obama said, weighing in for the first time on acontroversy that has riven New York and the nation.

"That includes the right to build a place of worship and acommunity center on private property in lower Manhattan, inaccordance with local laws and ordinances," he said. "This isAmerica, and our commitment to religious freedom must beunshakable."

Obama made the comments at an annual dinner in the White HouseState Dining Room celebrating the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The White House had not previously taken a stand on the mosque,which would be part of a $100 million Islamic center to be built inlower Manhattan two blocks from where nearly 3,000 people perishedwhen hijacked jetliners slammed into the World Trade Center towerson Sept. 11, 2001. Press secretary Robert Gibbs had insisted it wasa local matter.

It was already much more than that, sparking debate around thecountry as top Republicans including Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrichannounced their opposition.

Obama elevated it to a presidential issue Friday withoutequivocation.

While insisting that the place where the twin towers once stoodwas indeed "hallowed ground," Obama said that the proper way tohonor it was to apply American values.

"Our capacity to show not merely tolerance, but respect tothose who are different from us - a way of life that stands instark contrast to the nihilism of those who attacked us on thatSeptember morning, and who continue to plot against us today," hesaid.